Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett remains adamant his side is on the cusp of something special.
Whether he's right or wrong, the franchise's marketing team will earn its keep trying to sell such a rosy vision on Saturday when the Canes host the Highlanders, and into next season.
That's because Friday night's loss to the Chiefs means the Hurricanes have now missed the playoffs in each of the three years Hammett has been in charge.
Ninth in 2011 and eighth last year, the Hurricanes sit in 11th place with two matches to play with six wins and eight losses to their name.
Hammett and assistant Alama Ieremia have another year running on their contract, so will get at least one more chance to realise their vision.
"It might be hard to understand but we aren't looking at it like there are two games to go, but as a beginning," Hammett said yesterday. "We still believe we've got big fish to fry. Conrad Smith and Ben Franks spoke absolutely passionately about that after the game [on Friday], that this is just the beginning for this team."
The team had not met its goal for the season of reaching the playoffs and was disappointed, but Hammett rejected the notion it had not made progress during his tenure.
"We're more confident, we've learned a lot from the ups and downs of this campaign and we've become a better side," Hammett said.
"There is so much to continue to play for because we're not looking at this as the end of the season.
"Some may say that's a strange mindset and find that hard to resonate with, but it's really passionate for us in terms of moving forward.
"I know as fans we look at season to season . . . our goal was to make the playoffs, but we can still achieve and move forward as a team, so that come 2014 we are a better side."
Hammett has changed the franchise in many positive ways. His players are easier to deal with, more popular with stakeholders, and hugely active in the community.
Team spirit emanates from the Newtown training base and is evident in training, but the raw results do not provide a ringing endorsement.
Over the past three years the Hurricanes' record reads, played 45, won 21, lost 23, drawn 1.
And if the current season finished now, the franchise would equal its lowest overall placing since Super Rugby began, albeit the 2004 ladder included only included 12 teams.
The Hurricanes can't finish any lower and could well win their remaining two matches against the Highlanders and Crusaders.
Mathematically they could climb as high as seventh, but it is hard to argue that 2013 has not consistently delivered the rugby to match the talent in the squad.
Injuries have played a part, but most frustrating has been the glimpses of true quality, including the first half against the Chiefs where first five-eighth Beauden Barrett ran amok.
"That's the best footy we've played this year, there's no doubt about that," Hammett said of the 34-22 loss in Hamilton.
It's been a familiar refrain this year after losses.
Lots of positives, tinged with the regret of giving away soft tries, making crucial errors and not adapting to the referees.
"It felt like they didn't so much win the game, but pounced on our errors as top teams do really well," Hammett said, perhaps summing up where the side need to head over the next fortnight and beyond.
There is enough about the Hurricanes to suggest some smart recruitment could push them to the next level next season, but first the 2013 squad must play its last two matches.
They will do so without utility back Tusi Pisi who is out for the remainder of the season after chipping the bone in his hand playing for Samoa in South Africa. Hooker Dane Coles (calf) will also remain on the sidelines.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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